Healing from narcissistic abuse

Narcissistic abuse can leave deep emotional scars. After ending a relationship with someone with narcissistic traits or distancing yourself from them, you might feel like you are reeling. You might feel numb, confused, drained, angry, distressed or depressed. You might feel damaged in a way you cannot easily find words for.


Please know you are not alone in experiencing this. The good news is that healing from narcissistic abuse is possible. The healing journey is not linear, it takes time, but it is full of hope and growth. At its core lies something invaluable and life-changing: coming home to yourself – finally. If you would like to read more about healing after narcissistic abuse, then this article is for you.

What is narcissistic abuse?

Narcissistic abuse can be defined as a type of emotional or psychological abuse coming from someone with narcissistic traits. It can be perpetrated by anyone close to us: a partner, our parents, another family member, a friend, an employer, or a colleague.

People with narcissistic traits typically:

  • prioritise their own needs and wants only, to the extent of using, exploiting or hurting others
  • lack empathy 
  • have a strong need to be admired, heard and seen
  • have a strong need to feel superior (and for that reason belittle others systematically)
  • consciously or unconsciously use manipulation tactics such as gaslighting (where you are made to doubt your own perceptions and your own memories; where you are made to feel you have a psychological problem and are causing the issues in the relationship: for example, by being overly sensitive or emotionally unstable)

Narcissistic abuse is difficult to identify

Narcissistic abuse can be hard to spot. It can take years for a person caught up in a relationship where this kind of abuse is present to realise what is going on. But what makes it so hard to detect?

The main reason is that narcissistic abuse is psychological. Alongside direct verbal criticism, narcissistic abusers employ strategies that aim to shift the responsibility for their actions onto the person being abused. As a consequence, narcissistic abuse gets inside your head. It chips away at your self-confidence and ultimately, at your perception of reality. This makes identifying the abuse so incredibly hard.

A second reason why the abuse is so difficult to detect is that often people with narcissistic traits have learned that self-serving behaviours are not socially acceptable and generally frowned upon. As a consequence, they have learned to act in more subtle ways and hide their narcissism. This is called covert narcissism (as opposed to more blatant, overt narcissism).

What narcissistic abusers all have in common though is that another person’s needs and feelings matter less or not at all to them (lack of empathy) and that there is no willingness to take accountability or truly change their behaviours.

How narcissistic abuse affects us

Narcissistic abuse can have a huge impact on a survivor’s mental health. It can cause issues such as anxiety, relationship difficulties, loneliness, depression, low self-esteem, anger, dissociation and trauma. Let’s look at some of these issues more closely.

Low self-esteem:

Narcissistic abuse gradually chips away at your self-worth. This happens through constant little digs, sustained criticism and comparisons (narcissists love to compare you with others in order to put you down – this is called triangulation).

It is not uncommon for this to touch every area of your life: your personality, intelligence, work performance, parenting, looks, weight, dress sense, taste in music, cooking, driving, exercising, the way you have sex, and the way you relate to others. What is most insidious about the abuse is that over time, you end up internalising the comments: you start to believe them. Friends and family might start to comment that they do not recognise you anymore. Over time, you may feel like you have become a husk of yourself.

Creation of a trauma bond and a difficulty to detach from the abusive person:

As we now know thanks to the science of addiction, it is the very inconsistency and unpredictability of the abuser’s display of love that get us hooked. The cycle of abuse, which continuously pedals through the love-bombing and abuse stages, eventually creates what is called a “trauma bond” with the abuser. It is because there is trauma that the intermittent crumbs of love and affection become so important to your brain. If you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you have no contact or are finding it hard to leave the abuser, please know that this is very common and that it is caused by the psychological and biological impact of the cycle of abuse.

Complex trauma or C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder):

As trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk explains, the trauma from abuse (especially if the abuse occurred in childhood) is complex because it is relational in its nature and often goes on for a prolonged period of time, as opposed to a one-off traumatic event such as a car accident. Neuroscientists have shown that complex trauma leaves an imprint on the brain, causing symptoms such as memory loss and brain fog.

Relationship problems:

Such as not identifying red flags, entering new unhealthy relationships, and people-pleasing habits. Psychologist Nicole LePera explains why we might fall into patterns of people-pleasing when we have been abused: when faced with danger – and abuse is interpreted by our brain and body as emotional danger – our nervous system has several responses it can activate to help us survive. Our body will do this automatically, releasing the necessary hormones and setting in motion the necessary physiological responses.

The most well-known reactions our nervous system can resort to are fight, flight and freeze, but in recent years, “fawn” has been added to this list. “Fawn” is when we have unconsciously learned that it is safest for us to go along with the other person, constantly scan their body language for possible cues of how they are feeling, and where we do what we can to keep them happy and appease them.

Survivors of narcissistic abuse tend to blame themselves for having stayed in unhealthy relationships for too long. They can feel shame about having resorted to “fawn.” Their family and friends might struggle to understand why they stayed in a toxic relationship. But it is important to understand that “fawn” is a natural, physiological reaction our nervous system activates when we experience severe stress and danger.

Narcissistic abuse can also have an impact on our physical health:

Issues such as sleep disruption, stomach problems, headaches and chronic pain conditions are now well-documented. In Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt explains why abuse can lead to physical health issues: in the long run, adapting to the stress of abuse changes the cortisol levels in the brain. This in turn translates into changes in our body, for example, a lowering of the efficiency of our immune system.

Two essential steps for healing: Identifying the abuse and placing responsibility where it belongs

The first step in your healing journey is seeing the abuse for what it is. Inform yourself, and read up about it. Be gentle with yourself if it took you time to identify what was going on. Narcissistic abusers are very good at hiding their game. They can be charismatic and charming, especially to those who know them less intimately.

The second essential step is to remember the abuse you experienced was never your fault. You are not responsible for someone else’s poor behaviour. In fact, starting to place responsibility where it belongs is central to healing. This is because of how narcissistic abuse works: the abuser makes you out to be the one who “has a problem.” This happens through blame-shifting, gaslighting and projecting. Projecting is when someone accuses you of behaviours they display themselves (such as lying or cheating). It can also be a projection of their own uncomfortable and disavowed emotions (such as when they say: “You are a jealous person” or “You are always so angry,” when this is actually their case).

Slowly, gradually, as responsibility is always being placed on you by the abuser, you end up believing that you are indeed the problem – that you are reactive, angry, unstable, unkind, possessive, and controlling. For this very reason, placing responsibility where it belongs can be eye-opening and transformative.

Strategies that can help you on your healing journey

1. Self-care

Self-care is the core of healing from abuse. But self-care is not just an occasional pampering activity. It is a fundamental shift in where your focus and attention lies: caring for and about yourself. Self-care is tending to your needs and reconnecting with your feelings and inner world.

As trauma specialist Carolyn Spring writes, ultimately, recovery is also about being free from self-abuse. When you have experienced emotional abuse, you often end up treating yourself the same way your abuser did. A tell-tale sign of this is when you catch yourself talking to yourself in a harsh, critical way. The essence of your recovery is going to come from you treating yourself with patience, kindness and self-compassion.

Caring for and about yourself can at first feel counterintuitive, tiresome or selfish, especially if you have spent years – or a lifetime – tending to others’ needs. Self-care means focusing on yourself, even if it is hard – especially when it is hard. Practise activities that nurture you, in body and mind. It could be journalling, taking up a hobby, travelling, reconnecting with friends or family, or spending time in nature. But it is not just about activities: it is about truly attuning to yourself. To do so, you can regularly check in with yourself throughout the day and ask yourself how you are feeling. Mindfulness can help with this. Speak to yourself in encouraging, kind ways, like you would to a friend.

You might have to fake it until you make it – giving yourself time and attention might not come naturally to you, but eventually, you will start to notice a profound shift in how you take care of yourself and how you feel about yourself.

2. Boundaries and distance to protect you

When possible, go “no contact” with the abuser: completely stop all contact, even if this is hard in the beginning. Unfollow them on social media and block them on your phone. If this is not possible, for example, because this is a family member or you are co-parenting with them, go what is called “grey rock”: become as boring to this person as a grey rock; give short, factual answers; and avoid taking the bait to enter long discussions and arguments. Eventually, they will get bored of you and turn their attention elsewhere.

Watch out for “hoovering”: a well-known tactic aimed at sucking you back into the cycle of abuse, through renewed love-bombing, presents, attention, surprises – even bad surprises, such as a phone call telling you they have had an accident or another emergency.

3. Develop your knowledge of narcissistic abuse

There are plentiful podcasts, books, blogs and websites that provide information. Information can be truly empowering and validating.

Here are some pointers for helpful topics:

  • The cycle of narcissistic abuse: Love bombing (showering you with affection) => devaluing (criticism, abuse) => discard (callously ending the relationship or cutting you out) => hoovering back into the relationship (through renewed love bombing)
  • Trauma bonds
  • Attachment theory, and why we stay in abusive relationships. Neurobiology has taught us this surprising fact: we, as humans, are wired for attachment and not for safety first. Or more precisely: throughout the evolution of our species, we have become biologically programmed to think that safety lies in attachment. Following this logic, what we are most afraid of is to lose an attachment. But, and this is important, attachment does not discriminate between what is right and what is not right for us: it simply forms when we spend time with someone and become close to them. Missing an abuser can feel like love, but it has its roots in the attachment that was formed
  • How trauma affects the brain and the body: Knowing more about the neurobiology of trauma helps us approach ourselves with more compassion and empathy, for example by understanding that “freeze” (not doing anything in response to abuse) and “fawn” are automatic survival responses our nervous system resorts to.

4. Build your support network

As part and parcel of the narcissistic abuse, you might have been isolated from your family and friends by the abuser. A good support network is a great way to help you in your recovery.

5. Therapy

Therapy can play an important role in your healing journey. Look for a trauma-informed therapist, who has experience working with survivors of abuse.

Research has shown that the therapeutic relationship and the experience of engaging in therapy itself are healing. In fact, the therapeutic relationship is now recognised as one of the most important factors contributing to effective therapy. Researchers found that it is not so much a specific counsellor modality, approach or technique that contributes to good outcomes in therapy: it is the safety of a healthy, caring connection with someone you can trust that makes counselling so healing.

Therapy can help with:

  • Making sense of your experience by talking about it. In the process, you might start to experience emotions you were not able to tune in to yet, such as anger towards the abuser. Through a process called dissociation, we might have split off some of our memories of the abuse and emotions related to it.
  • Learning to feel safe again, emotionally and physically, so that your fight-flight-freeze-fawn responses are not so easily activated any more.
  • Letting go of self-blame and approaching your experience with empathy towards yourself. The therapist’s empathy will help foster this if you find it hard to look at your own experience with self-compassion.
  • Looking at how you set boundaries and why you might find it hard to set them.
  • Tuning in to your own needs and learning to prioritise them.
  • Developing interoception: Bessel van der Kolk talks about the importance of cultivating interoception, which he describes as the connection with your inner sensations, gut feelings and intuition so that you can feel in charge of your body and yourself again. Interoception allows you to productively use the information that your gut feelings give you.
  • Rebuilding self-confidence: sometimes, narcissistic abuse has undermined our self-worth to such an extent that we can hear the voice of the other person in our head criticising us, or we become highly self-critical. Rebuilding self-confidence is about gradually replacing that critical voice with a different, more caring, empathic and encouraging one.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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York YO10 & YO1
Written by Alicia Tromp, MBACP, PG.Dip | Online Registered Counsellor
York YO10 & YO1

Alicia Tromp is a humanistic counsellor (BACP registered). She works with adults and young people (16+) on issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, relationship problems, family issues, trauma and abuse. She is LGBT QIA+ affirmative.

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