I hadn’t figured out my partner was a narcissist yet, but the emotional abuse was already destroying me. I didn't know then what I know now—that narcissists will keep coming back in different shapes and forms until we learn what we need to learn from them. That's true of any toxic type you find yourself drawing in over and over. There's something we need to learn.
So, rather than leaving the other narcissist-magnets to claw their way out of the muck on their own, I decided to draw on my own life experience, my training as a psychologist, and the expertise of my professional colleagues to create this guide to breaking free from the toxic relationship cycle. You can get out, and you can have happy, healthy relationships. The rest of your life starts now.
1. Stop making excuses for the abusers in your life.
"I’m going to hit you," she stated and raised her fist. My boyfriend's mother often interspersed requests for presents with cruel insults, then laughed them away as jokes. She’d say things like "Have you had lip implants recently?" or make racist slurs suggesting I’d be arrested at customs for being a "Thai drug mule." I told myself, "She’s his mother. She’s had a hard life." But that weekend, something changed. I stood up to her. I finally stopped trying to make excuses for her and accepted that something in her was broken. It wasn't about me, and it wasn't my job to fix it.
Even when someone mistreats you repeatedly, it's easy to judge yourself for making a boundary. We think, "I should be better. I should be able to handle this. I should be able to turn the other cheek." But the truth is, when giving someone another chance comes at the expense of your emotional well-being, you should give that choice a long, hard look before you make it.
Once I finally accepted that my relationship with his mother might not be salvageable, I was able to take a closer look at my relationship with my then-partner. See, I was guilty of excusing his behavior the same way I excused his mother's. His increasing cruelty was just a side effect of his alcohol and cocaine abuse, and he had promised to get help with those.
I wanted to believe that everyone was inherently good. I couldn't accept the idea that some people don't work that way—that they hurt you not because you've done anything to deserve it but because they themselves have been hurt. So, life kept throwing me disordered individuals to deal with until I recognized that truth.
I had to stop making excuses for the abusive people in my life before I could allow myself to consider cutting ties with them. Until I accepted that I couldn't fix everyone, I kept hoping that fundamentally abusive people would change, would heal, and would rebuild healthy relationships with me.
2. Allow yourself to be cared for.
My friend Terri Cole taught me the truth about over-giving. As high-achieving women, we find it hard to say yes when someone offers help. But if we can’t allow ourselves to be taken care of and instead insist on taking care of others, then, of course, we will attract people who need (yet refuse) to be fixed.
I had to learn to say yes to kindness. And beyond that, the epiphany Terri helped me reach broke open my search for deep self-love and growth.
Here are a few small ways to begin showing yourself love:
Start each day with this intention: "In everything I do, I take care of myself. I am deserving of love." I repeat this to myself while anointing my neck and wrists with bergamot essential oil. It amplifies self-worth.
Every time you feel guilty for taking care of yourself, ask yourself this question: "What would I tell my best friend/child if she were feeling this way?"
Acknowledge your progress. Don't quantify or minimize it. Celebrating your growth will make you feel more capable.
Treat yourself. Seriously! Give yourself permission to have that steaming mug of hot chocolate, go get a massage, or take a mental health day. Act like you deserve to be taken care of—you do.
3. Get wise to the red flags.
Narcissists have all kinds of ways to hook you, but there are always warning signs.
Maybe they're charming and funny, but the smoothness feels a bit too polished. Conversations with my narcissistic ex initially felt like jazz music—they were punctuated with figurative appoggiaturas, trills, and gruppetti. Even if his monologues sometimes didn't quite land, my brain would fill in the gaps because I wanted it all to add up (a sentiment my clients echo).
Other narcissists may lure you in with the "woe is me! The world has it out for me," stories, tugging at your heartstrings. My ex eventually resorted to this kind of behavior, attempted to guilt me if I "abandoned" him (he used that word often).
If you notice that everything seems to be conspiring against someone, and they're always the first to tell you about it, something is probably rotten in Mudville.
You'll notice that if you start to ask a narcissist questions about their topics of interest or expertise, they'll either recite a textbook answer or try to turn the conversation around and make it about what you are or aren't doing and what that says about you as a person.
My ex often liked to flaunt his expertise in sacred geometry, so I once played a TEDtalk that combined molecular shapes (something I'm interested in) and geometry. He stopped the video a few minutes in, told me he’d figured this out a long time ago, and that I was stupid if I needed to watch it. I was confused and hurt. In hindsight, I realized that he was trying to hide his own ignorance.
Most narcissists eventually start exhibiting controlling behavior. My colleague Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart says that this often starts early with subtle signs. They may start commenting on your clothing or asking you to change. A narcissist may make vaguely threatening comments like, "You might not want to make me mad." They might tell you your friends don't want what's best for you or your family is trying to hold you back because they want to be the only person you trust.
My ex would literally check my body for signs that I'd had breast implants. It was unfathomable. He'd explain it by saying, "I've been lied to before." I told him it wasn’t cool, but I didn't make a firm boundary.
If I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be this: Trust your gut. If it feels wrong, it probably is.
Every time we let someone infringe on our boundaries, we're inviting them to do it again. Little by little, we become numb to behavior that we would never have accepted in the past.
As Sheela says, "This is not a partnership of equals and you must step away quickly."
4. Don't let yourself get carried away.
Anyone who’s been with a narcissist has the same story. They recount being flattered, wooed, and swept off their feet. A narcissist makes you feel like you're the only person in the world. They’ll say, "I can't stop thinking about you," and later use that as a justification for controlling behavior and paranoia.
They also start talking about "the future" early on—in a vague way, where you can't pin down any details, but somehow they seem 100 percent sure that you'll have grandkids together someday. They dangle the future in front of you, tricking you into committing your energy by making you believe they're in it for the long haul.
Terri says, "Don't be fooled by the love-bombing narcissists use to 'shock and awe' you into submission. They'll go to great lengths and grand gestures to impress and disarm you. Take it slowly. Don't let anyone bulldoze you. Slow and steady keeps you healthy."
If it's love, it won't fizzle if you take things slowly.
5. Trust your gut.
I didn’t like him when we first interacted—I wasn’t even physically attracted to him. Looking back, my gut and heart were screaming at me to stay away. But he wore me down.
When I was younger, I was a bit robotic. I was cerebral and disconnected from my feelings. It helped me function in fast-paced Singapore. But Terri says to listen to your body’s wisdom. "If someone or something seems too good to be true, it is. Your body will give you signs if you take the time to listen. Ask yourself how you feel when you're with someone. When someone makes a snide comment or puts you down in a passive-aggressive way, it's not all in your head. The moment your body tells you something is wrong, listen and get out."
But a lot of us overanalyze. You may have even read the red flags above and told yourself, "This time it is different: he’s not that type of person." Common rationalizations, according to Sheela, include, "He doesn’t mean to hurt me," "He is really sorry afterward," "It was my fault," and "He can be really sweet and gentle." Sound familiar?
6. Own your story.
Many of us—even if we are able to talk about our experiences—still feel haunted by them. That’s because we haven’t gone deep enough. To really be free, we have to examine the damage at the root level, weed it out, and start to rebuild.
My friend Dr. Jonathan Marshall has some deep wisdom for survivors.
He tells us to examine what attracts us to dating narcissists. How does that serve us? In his experience, narcissists can be "functional" partners for people who crave dependency or servitude. They can remove an unwanted sense of agency, which gives us an excuse not to take charge of our lives. In other words, someone else makes the decisions, and that feels safe to us if we don’t trust ourselves.
Narcissists can also fulfill a desire to be sexually dominated—they're more likely to engage in sadistic sex in a nonconsensual fashion.
This isn’t a straightforward question. You may not like the answers because they don’t align with who think you are or who you’d like to be. But that makes them all the more important to ask—and to answer honestly.
Next, ask yourself what is bad about dating narcissists. Jonathan says, "While the answer may seem obvious, the fact that you still do it means that at some level you aren’t convinced it’s all bad. Perhaps there is a childhood wound in your way. Ask your friends how you changed when you dated a narcissist. Examine how you felt—the good and the bad."
Perhaps you believe you only deserve bad people. Terri says that we all have a "love blueprint," shaped by our earlier experiences, and we are drawn to people who allow us to relive the same experiences over and over until we heal from them. Even if you don’t cognitively believe you deserve someone who treats you badly, your heart might recognize that and cling to it.
Jonathan illustrates this with a common case study. In this case study, a successful businesswoman only goes out with toxic people. She shuns potential partners who appear kind and giving, thinking, "They can’t see who I am. They can't see the abuse I deserve." Her abusive childhood has conditioned her to go into personal relationships feeling like she's a "waste of space" and "useless."
Once you figure out your subconscious hang-ups and make peace with them, they won’t be a source of shame. Instead, you’ll realize that your past chapters are lessons you’ve learned in order to heal old wounds. Then, the strength you’ve gained will propel you forward. You become unshakable.
Of course, you’ve got to learn to walk away from negative circumstances and relationships—declutter your life of any existing toxic relationships. And before long, you'll stop attracting them altogether. That life is possible for you. You deserve it. Here’s to your beautiful next chapter.