How A Relationship With A Narcissist Can Cause Lifelong Trauma + How To Heal
Leaving a narcissist doesn't end with simply physically leaving, packing up your belongings, and building a new life. Women, for instance, go back to their abuser an average of seven times, even if she was the one who initiated the termination. During one of these times, she may lose her life.
Even after a person has permanently ended their relationship with the narcissist, oftentimes they can find themselves still shackled by the trauma of what happened. As a psychologist who works with survivors of narcissistic abuse regularly, I've seen the way a past relationship with a narcissist can continue to haunt someone and hold them back considerably even years down the line.
The lingering trauma of being in a relationship with a narcissist.
If you're fresh out of that relationship, you'll blame yourself and fall prey to their requests to meet because they'd love to apologize and thank you—during which they'll hook you back. They'll intermittently appear and disappear from your life, especially when you're starting to live better again, because they don't want you having a good life without them. Sometimes, you'll miss them and want to reach out. Or you continue keeping in touch because you think that's the polite thing to do, and that's how the narcissist continues to subtly poison you, impeding your healing.
But the effects of having dated a narcissist can continue to linger even after you've cut off all contact and your legal entanglements with them are over.
The thing about trauma is that our brains need closure. And so sometimes we end up in similar relationships, or what we call "repetition compulsion" in psychology. It feels like a bad magic spell, and we feel more helpless and hopeless with time.
Or, fast-forward decades. You can be in an amazing relationship with someone who loves you, but you're always looking over your shoulder. You're haunted by the trauma and anxiety, which you may manage by medicating yourself with work, overthinking, or praying, but it's always in the background. You wonder why people hurt you and why you can't trust most humans. And one fine day, the trauma catches up with you, and you break down.
This trauma can even pass on to your next generations—some evidence suggests that unresolved trauma passes on genetically and energetically within the family line so that it can be resolved by one's descendants eventually. In the case of narcissistic abuse, that means people later in your family line could end up being involved in relationships with abusers, or become abusers themselves. In spiritual circles, the saying that the same lessons will present themselves over and over again until we've learned them.
Leaving is the first step; it's staying gone that's the real legwork of healing from a narcissistic relationship. Gone from them in your head, body, and soul.
How to heal from your experience with a narcissist.
Let's use an analogy we all understand. There is a wound, and we cannot merely slap on Band-Aids. We have to go deep and clean it and harness our natural ability to heal and rejuvenate. At the same time, we'll ensure that the surface of the skin strengthens and beautifies. In other words, we work on both the roots and symptoms at the same time.
Here's what you'll need to do:
1. Don't do this alone.
You can pick up books and articles about breaking up with a narcissist, but chances are, you'll be fumbling with the DIY process and losing heart. When it comes to this type of trauma, working with a professional who can help guide you through is extremely important.
2. No or minimal contact.
If you do not have any more entanglements with them, keep it that way. Do not even dream of staying friends. Keep accountable to someone you can contact when you want to communicate with the narcissist. If you have joined responsibilities and assets, engage professionals and intermediaries. This applies even to going to your previously shared property to collect your belongings.
Co-parenting with a narcissist can be more difficult than parenting on your own; they'll use your children as puppets to hurt you further and undo the parenting you do. If you are fighting legal battles with your narcissistic ex, they'll use the court as their new playground for abuse. Remember, they know which buttons to push to discredit you; so do your part by engaging trusted lawyers and therapists who truly understand narcissistic abuse, have your back, and support you to be in an emotionally stable place. It takes a village to reclaim true freedom.
3. Don't bypass the healing process.
One thing that infuriates me is the myth that trauma and mental health problems can at best be managed your entire life. That is not true. Make sure that the professional you engage is trauma-trained and understands the specific struggles you are experiencing and knows all the traps to look out for and the way the human brain can sabotage your healing. For instance, panic attacks are common when you've been with an abuser, so your professional must know how to treat them.
It's not enough to simply talk and bypass the pain intellectually or spiritually; trauma is stored in your body, and you have to actively rewire the fear center and timekeeper in your brain. Nor is it enough to simply "work on the future" or tell yourself mantras you don't believe. You cannot bypass processing what you've gone through. Otherwise your past will haunt you with a vengeance eventually
And remember, your job isn't to forgive your narcissist; it's to forgive yourself.
4. Build strong foundations.
You'll need to have a present and future to look forward to. You'll need to learn to reclaim the things you loved and the parts of you that were wrestled away from you during the relationship. Your goals must sync with creating strong foundations in who you are and across different aspects of your life—such as your body and health, mind, relationships, money, and career. Bad things happen in life, but they don't last forever. When you build strong foundations, you actively grow and practice resilience. You become unshakable and learn to ride the waves of life.
5. Keep practicing boundaries, and know you have permission to have them.
We didn't go to school and learn how to identify dark personality types or what boundaries are, so it's not your fault. What you do with this experience henceforth, however, is your responsibility.
There are likely relationships in your life where your boundaries are eroded or poor, mirroring your relationship with the narcissist. Start by creating a list of your personal boundaries—the Hell No's—in your life. Take boundaries as your litmus test—respectful people who've unwittingly violated your boundaries will be apologetic and not do it again, whereas toxic people won't. Write scripts for what you'll say in certain situations. You'll sound awkward at first. Just as it's painful when you start training your muscles, you'll get stronger and feel so proud of yourself.
6. Don't tell everyone.
You don't have to explain to everyone about what's going on in your life, what you're doing, and why you ended up in a toxic relationship. People will pry, some out of concern, others out of nosiness, and then a few because they want to signal superiority because they never landed in your predicament. Difficult people will force their opinions and prescriptions for your future down your throat. Not everyone is on your side—take this as an opportunity to streamline your relationships.
For those who have your back who you don't want to talk to about this, you can simply say, "I'm working on this with a trained professional, so let's keep our time to what we can both enjoy."
7. Stop bullying yourself.
You may be physically removed from the narcissist, but they can often live in your head. Abuse trains us to blame ourselves. You may realize that you're angry with yourself for everything—not recognizing the abuse, falling in love, staying too long, or for even leaving. You'll blame yourself for many things you continue to do.
To truly exorcise the narcissist, you have to commit to growing the muscles of forgiving yourself and taking good care of yourself. That means whenever you catch yourself lapsing into self-blame, you notice it without judging yourself and then do something to break that vicious cycle.
8. Make new memories.
Perhaps you've had tons of memories in a place you used to frequent with your ex. And you really enjoy that place. You don't need to taint that solely with the past. Make new memories in activities and places with yourself or people you trust.
This may seem overwhelming at first. In psychology, we call this a behavioral experiment—we practice experiencing that our nervous system can regulate itself, and then we know we can prevail. And then these things you once held dear to you start becoming a part of your life again.
9. Make empathy your superpower.
Many clients I work with despise their empathy because they believe it got them into trouble. That's not necessarily true. Empathy may be your Achilles heel because you aren't selective of who you give that precious resource to; it's also part of your identity, and you don't want to be cynical and jaded. You can practice discerningly diverting this empathy to yourself and those who deserve it. This way, it works for you rather than against you.
10. Know that we believe you.
The intricacies of an abusive relationship are such that it's hard for someone who's never been in one to truly understand. There'll be a lot of doubt cast on you, making you wonder if you are truly silly for having fallen for one. You'll also doubt yourself if your narcissist was "that bad," or if you're being dramatic, because gaslighting erodes your sense of reality. Moreover, no relationship is 100% bad. There were good times, whether or not the narcissist's intentions were real.
You don't need everyone to believe you. Know that I believe you. There's a whole bunch of us out there who believe you.
The bottom line.
Truly healing from a narcissist takes effort, as with anything. But the steps you can slowly gain proficiency in are fundamentally simple. What you have to watch out for is how we'll always talk ourselves out of it.
Ask yourself: How do you want to see your future self—do you want to respect this person, or would you like to see them calcified into a worse version of what they are today? And then ask yourself: What legacy would you like to leave behind? By healing, you inspire the people around you, your future generations, and other survivors of narcissistic abuse to believe that they have a future.
We can choose to whitewash our past by pretending it doesn't exist, but secrets make us sick. Instead, I choose to live by this—I want my past to pay dividends, and I want my demons to work for me.
Writing from the other side, it is my deepest prayer for you that you'll get there too.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.