Anyone can rationalize why the past was a lesson and convince themselves that they are happy. But despite the awesome people you’re with, if your past still haunts you in your darkest moments, then it still owns you.
How can you tell if your past (and your narcissist) is haunting you? If you feel unable to trust life, if you’re looking over one shoulder at all times, and if you’re unable to relax. You wonder if your past will catch up with you, and a part of you still lives on tenterhooks. Because reality goes deeper than mere logic. Here’s how you to know if you’re absolutely free of the narcissist in your past:
1. You're no longer interested in anything about them.
"He works at this agency now," a mutual friend said, and I wasn't interesting. It wasn’t a dogged "I need to avoid everything about him." There was no emotion, yet it wasn’t apathy. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like garbage bins lining the sidewalk. You know they’re around, but you don’t really register their presence. Nor do you want to gravitate toward them.
This means you don't care or respond if they reach out, don't feel a sense of fear about "missing out" on information if you block them digitally, and don't feel curiosity about what's happening to them.
2. You allow yourself to receive.
Narcissists prey on over-givers with an inflated sense of responsibility. Partners of narcissists have problems receiving—they don’t believe they should, shun favors, and repay kindness 10 times over. And they still feel bad. I know it intimately because that was who I was fundamentally. And I understood that if I couldn’t allow myself to receive, then I would only attract people in my life who needed fixing but didn’t want that. Indeed, I saw it in a subset of historical "friends" I hid from the healthy majority of my circle.
The pain from such people trumped the discomfort of receiving. So for a year I trained myself, sitting through my internal squirming and protesting head. Compliments, meals, presents, favors, acts of kindness, smiles. It didn’t matter. As I explain to my clients these days, "You’ve given so much that there’s tons of credit in your Karma Bank. Time to cash out on the interest." It is at that moment that they really get it.
3. You don't hate them anymore.
First, I must emphasize this: Forgiving your narcissist shouldn’t even factor into your list of healing goals. If it happens, it happens. I expected myself to hate him forever. But a year later, I found myself not hating or loving him. And it struck me that just as the attraction and love had died a long time ago, so had the hatred. I was liberated, in every sense of the word.
4. You're OK with being a rescuer.
For a while, I loathed the word "rescuer." I was an adoption counselor at the animal shelter when he first knew me, and I brought stray animals home. My master's thesis centered on prisoners’ rights, then I became a psychologist.
My parents raised me to give. They taught me to repair, rescue, and resuscitate. The sooner I stopped running away from the fact that I am innately a rescuer, the sooner I could acknowledge that it is merely one part of me. And then I could see the beauty of being a rescuer, being the champion that my younger self never had.
5. Your past stops tarring your self-worth.
Many women preface their expectations and boundaries with, "Even though I was once in an abusive relationship," and it floors me that they have to justify their demands. Perhaps you may feel that way for a little, as I did. Know you have the right to let go of that story. Failing once in a business venture doesn’t doom you to demand less from life.
Sometimes we are forced to confront how high our self-worth really is when we firmly say no to people who treat us terribly. Owning your past means that you understand the relationship was mostly a farce, and that’s OK. You no longer blame yourself or feel stupid for your previous chapter.
6. You're able to own who you are.
I used to bend over backward, feeling like a dancing monkey, trying to prove that I was intelligent rather than a privileged "air-headed pretty girl." So I piled on responsibilities to show I could "do it all": Living that internal conflict was exhausting, crippling my identity. So of course, I couldn’t trust my hunches about what and who were bad for me.
Then I committed to owning and celebrating the different parts of me. The light and darkness and everything in between. I walked out of the black and white, and learned to sail in the gray zone. Today, I own my past, hunches, and every face of me. Integrating my lessons means I look back and laugh. And it is a laughter devoid of bitterness or jadedness.
7. You trust in your present and future.
We are governed by a set of stories we’re often unaware of.
When bad things like abuse happen, it shatters our world of assumptions and we become the puppets of stories like, "Only bad things happen" and, "The world is a dangerous place." This is how a happy-go-lucky person suddenly becomes bitter and hypervigilant.
When you are truly free of your narcissist, you know in your bones that good things will happen to you and that there are good people in the world. You aren’t doggedly forcing yourself to "be grateful" while actually feeling miserable. You truly see and experience the magic in the present and future, even if life throws you the curveballs it throws everyone.
As Paulo Coelho pointed out, we live with one foot in a fairy tale and the other in a cesspit. And you dance the dialectic with grace.
8. You have ironclad boundaries.
As a young girl, I was guilted into being nice and turning the other cheek. Nobody taught me what boundaries were. No matter how tough I was, when someone wormed their way into my heart, I didn’t know I could have boundaries. Here’s what boundaries really are.
Just as standards are the "Hell yes!" in your life, boundaries are the "Hell no!"
When you can declare your boundaries, you can trust yourself to live your life, knowing that you will not tolerate having your limits pushed. They are the happy zone within which you play. Boundaries are how we respect ourselves and how we teach others how we feel respected. You can also trust yourself to revisit your boundaries—it doesn’t mean you are rigid and it’s all carved in stone. And when you develop boundaries, some people will inevitably kick back. And you will stand firm.
9. The attraction spell is broken
We are attracted to narcissists because they feel familiar. But no matter how we know that logically we won’t tolerate subpar treatment, a part of us gravitates toward them. This is because there is something about the dynamic that reminds us of something familiar.
When we're young, our minds are immature and we form stories about the world and our worthiness based on conclusions we jump to. And we repeat these scenarios like a tape on loop, until our minds get closure.
I always ask my clients, "How does your body feel around a narcissist?" Do you find your brain relentlessly justifying why they are good people? If there were a song that could capture how you feel around a narcissist, what would it be?
Then, how does your body feel around someone decent? Do you root for different people in the films you used to enjoy? I found myself cheering for the kindhearted person, not the brooding demon. And if you enjoy the company of someone whom you’d have otherwise dismissed previously, discovering exciting and wonderful things about them—congratulations, the spell is broken.
10. You are incandescent.
It’s normal for people to start doing things to show their ex-partner what they’re missing. Eventually, though, you start to live for yourself. You reclaim the parts of you he locked away. You boldly pursue the things you never dared to. And you take life by the balls.
But you’re not just doing it to escape; you’re becoming whole. That happens by sorting out the weak spots through which your narcissist wormed his way in.
Let me explain what healing is. Healing isn’t just talking things away and implanting another mindset. We are governed by both our hearts and minds; unfortunately, we oscillate between both rather than listening to their combined wisdom. Trauma is stored within our cells. This means it cannot be released with logic—hence why sometimes people say they’ve been in therapy for decades and nothing’s changed.
When you heal yourself, your heart and mind play a symphony with each other, and that’s when beautiful things happen. You are at peace. You learn to take care of yourself, and you learn to upgrade your life because you’ve given yourself the permission to do so.
Interested in learning more about narcissists? Here's what breaking up with a narcissist is actually like.
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