5 Steps To Healing After A Relationship With A Narcissist, From A Psychologist
Being in a relationship with a narcissist can cost you your health and your sanity. I know this because, as a clinical psychologist, not only have I worked with many clients ensnared in destructive relationships with narcissists, but I've also personally experienced the suffering they can cause.
From my experience, recovery seems to occur in five phases—what I call the "5 R's of Recovery." Let's look at each of these phases:
Recognize the problem.
It can take a long time before you recognize that you're in a bad situation. The toxic nature of a relationship with a narcissist is often hidden at the beginning. Indeed, it probably started like a dream come true. That's because narcissists use a strategy called "love bombing" to reel you in. They portray themselves as the perfect partner, making you feel special and worthy. But this is just a way to hook you, and it's frighteningly effective.
Over time, we begin to experience our partner's true toxic nature: the blaming, the gaslighting, the criticism, the lying, the future-faking, the withdrawal of affection to punish you. When this shift begins, we often think it's our fault things aren't as good, and we double down on our efforts to get things back to "normal." We hang on to the hope that the partner we saw in the beginning will return.
As these toxic behaviors take their toll, you might begin to feel sad, confused, cautious, frustrated, anxious, lonely, discouraged, and disappointed. You might experience health effects like headaches, insomnia, and indigestion. The longer you stay in this toxic environment, the worse it will get. Eventually, feelings of hopelessness, despair, and helplessness can settle in, and even thoughts about whether life is worth living.
It's critical that you recognize that you're in a toxic environment, that the changes you're experiencing in the relationship and in yourself are not your fault. It's not you; it's the narcissistic abuse and manipulation you're being subjected to. Identify the negative effects this relationship is having on you. Write them down. Talk with someone you trust. Believe yourself. You're not crazy. You're being poisoned.
Remove yourself from the toxic environment.
Once you've identified the problem (P.S. It's not you!) and the negative effects of being in this destructive relationship, you need to remove yourself from it. Staying in an unsafe relationship prevents you from recovering from it. The insidious part is that the longer you stay and the worse it gets, the harder it is to leave. Just as toxic physical environments make you weaker over time, so do toxic emotional, verbal, and psychological environments. The mind games and control start to feel normal. You grow accustomed to feeling bad and propping yourself up to make it through the day.
Sometimes we beat ourselves down with thoughts like, "I should be strong enough to handle this." Or, "It could be worse." Please hear me when I say it's not a matter of being strong. The longer you stay in a toxic physical environment, the sicker you get. The same thing happens in toxic relationships. Staying is a losing battle.
Please remember that often the most dangerous time is when you decide to leave. If you are in a physically abusive relationship or one that has the potential to be, have a plan in place to leave safely. (mbg has a full guide on how to leave an abusive relationship safely.)
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
Repair the damage.
Once you're out of the toxic relationship, you can begin to repair the damage you suffered. It often takes a professional "repair team" to help you do this effectively. Let me begin by saying any abuse you've suffered from being with a narcissistic partner is not your fault. The responsibility for the abuse, in whatever form it takes in your relationship, is 100% that of the abuser. What we are responsible for—and what we must identify and repair—is what made us vulnerable to getting into and staying in a destructive relationship.
This is where it can be lifesaving to find a trained mental health professional, who can help you identify what in your life made you vulnerable to being with a narcissistic partner. Together, you will identify patterns, mindsets, and behaviors that made you susceptible to this kind of relationship.
You might uncover dynamics you saw between your parents that you thought were normal or a tendency toward codependency that makes you both attractive and attracted to a narcissist. Repairing the vulnerabilities might also involve forgiving yourself for making the choices you did. Not to blame yourself but as a way to repair your relationship with yourself and to move forward.
You must do the internal repair work so that you don't end up with another narcissistic partner. I've seen too many women get out of one toxic relationship, experience a little freedom and joy, and find themselves right back in another toxic relationship. Do the repair work for as long as it takes so that you set yourself up for a healthy life and a healthy relationship.
Restore your soul and retrain your brain.
Next, after you identify and address the damage from your narcissistic relationship, you will need a period of restoration and retraining. Just because you're out of the toxic relationship, it doesn't mean you're fully healed and ready for your next relationship. There is very real work to be done to restore your sense of safety, trust, self-esteem, sense of worthiness, and peace of mind.
Being in a toxic relationship is a form of trauma. As such, it is very normal to experience a trauma response, which might include feeling exhausted, sad, anxious, agitated, detached, numb, or on guard.
These feelings don't necessarily disappear just because you removed yourself from the toxic relationship. It will take time to soothe your nervous system and retrain your brain to feel safe in your own skin again and to feel safe in another relationship. Again, seeking out professional help can be a vital part of your restoration and healing process.
There are many ways we can keep ourselves safe from future toxic relationships: healing the wounds that made you vulnerable to engaging in this type of relationship; recognizing red flags and heeding them; setting boundaries; raising your standards; understanding your value and worth; learning how to be whole on your own; knowing what narcissistic behavior looks, feels, and sounds like; having a zero-abuse tolerance policy; and seeking the counsel of trusted others. You might consider involving others in your future relationships as a second layer of eyes and accountability before making a major commitment.
Recreate your life.
Now that you've restored your inner well-being and sense of safety, it's time to recreate your life. You are not the same person you were when you first entered that narcissistic relationship. It's time to figure out who you want to be now that you are free. What kind of life do you want? What kind of relationship do you want to have in the future?
This is your chance to not just rebuild your former life before you entered that toxic relationship, but to recreate it! It's the silver lining in all this mess: You get a new beginning. You can come out better than you were before. Spend some time reflecting on the following questions:
- By going through this experience, in what ways have I changed for the better?
- What kind of life and relationship do I want going forward?
- What is possible for me now that would not have been possible had this dark time never happened?
- What have I learned?
- How will I help others with what I've learned?
The answers to these questions will help you redeem the pain you endured.
The negative impact toxic relationships have on our lives, health, and mental well-being is real, and it's serious. You're not crazy. And you don't have to limp your way through life or love. I hope the 5 R's of Recovery help you recognize the real problem, remove yourself, repair the vulnerabilities, restore your sense of safety and well-being, and recreate your life. Recovery from narcissistic relationships is possible, and you are worth it.
Michelle Pearce, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, researcher, author, board-certified health and wellness coach, and professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She graduated from Yale University with a doctorate in clinical psychology and completed her clinical internship and post-doctoral fellowships at Duke University Medical Center. She has written over 65 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters and published several books: Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Christians with Depression: A Tool-Based Primer, and Religion and Recovery from PTSD. Her clinical specialties include cognitive behavioral therapy and working with individuals in relationships with narcissistic partners.