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6 Steps To Recovering From Narcissistic Abuse

Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT
Updated on March 27, 2020
Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
By Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Margalis Fjelstad received her doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy/Counseling from Oregon State University. Her work specializes in clients with narcissistic parents or partners and has authored two books on the subject.
March 27, 2020

Navigating the aftermath of a breakup with a narcissist is completely different from healing from any other kind of breakup. What a narcissist does at the end of a relationship can leave you confused, frustrated, and even scared. When you feel strong and prepared to deal with the narcissist in new ways, you'll be better able to protect yourself and maintain your equilibrium. Below are the most crucial steps to take when recovering from narcissistic abuse:

1. Defuse your fear.

You immediately need to work on lowering your levels of fear and anxiety. Narcissistic rage is something awful to behold and can be terribly frightening to have aimed directly at you. The narcissist wants you to feel threatened and anxious so you can't think. Then you'll more easily give in to what they want. Narcissists believe that you deserve to feel bad for causing them to feel and look like a failure. A humiliated narcissist can be quite menacing and intimidating.

Don't believe the narcissist's dire and threatening predictions about your future, but also don't ignore their threats. Take steps immediately to protect yourself both physically and psychologically. Taking action can help defuse your fear. Change the locks on the doors, open a separate bank account, close or remove your name from all the joint credit cards, and stop making any requests for help from the narcissist. Don't respond to hostile emails or texts, and keep copies of any verbal and written threats in a notebook. It would be ideal if you did these things during the first days after separation. (Here's our full guide on how to leave an abusive relationship in the safest possible way.)

However, it's been my experience that most caretakers don't even think to do these things for weeks or months. The sooner you do them, the sooner you'll start feeling in control. If you find yourself shaking, unable to think, unable to eat, startling easily, and inundated with anxiety, you will need to calm these feelings before you can do much of anything. This is the time to remember to breathe.

2. Breathe intentionally.

This may sound simplistic, but it is essential that you consciously pay attention to your breathing. People in fear have a tendency to stop breathing or to hyperventilate. Both of these reactions interfere with oxygen getting to your brain, heart, and other primary organs. Not breathing will also trigger your freeze response. When your brain and body freeze and shut down, you can't think, remember things, or make rational decisions. At those times, you may find yourself more willing to give in to the narcissist's demands, give up your rights, or even beg the narcissist to come back just to ease your panic and fear. So breathing is essential for your mental health and your physical needs.

Sit or lie down somewhere comfortable and quiet. Put one hand over your heart and one hand on your diaphragm. Slowly breathe in, feeling your lower hand and then your upper hand move out as your lungs fill with air. Then slowly breathe out, feeling your lungs deflate and your shoulders drop. Do this to the count of four—four counts on the in-breath and four counts on the out-breath. Most people find that doing this breathing series even four or five times starts the relaxation process. If you are in deep distress, you may need to do this for 10 to 20 minutes.

This exercise is not a waste of time. Your body may be so tense that you can't fully relax, but it will help clear your mind enough to think again. It brings your cognitive functions back online. If you find that your body stays so tense that you find it painful to breathe and you can't sleep, then a relaxation or sleep medication may be helpful for a while. Used carefully, these medications can help you keep your panic in check. Talk with your doctor about what you are going through and ask what is right for you.

3. Find support.

No one can deal alone with the kind of situation you are going through. You need someone to listen so you can decompress, empty out your teeming thoughts, and get back on track. You also need validation that you're not crazy and assurance that you can handle this. A therapist with extensive knowledge about the narcissist and caretaker patterns and a nonjudgmental, non-advice-giving best friend are a minimal support team. Reading books, joining a support group, and staying active with at least some weekly social activities also help. Although you may find it hard to ask for help, remember that this is a serious situation, and you need to reach out for support. It is necessary for both your emotional and physical health.

4. Disengage.

The best way to protect yourself from a hostile narcissist is to disengage. Yes, the narcissist hates that, but they're already in a rage anyway, and it is no longer your job to take care of their feelings. Now is the time to think about your own emotional needs. If married, lawyers consistently tell their clients to quit responding and interacting with the narcissist and do all communicating through them until the divorce is over, but they say their clients rarely listen to them. I want to reinforce this recommendation. Until a final settlement is reached, narcissists will try every means possible to keep you emotionally distraught and off-balance with what they say and do.

Disengagement is more than not talking, texting, emailing, or interacting (although the no-contact rule is critical). It also includes emotionally letting go. To emancipate yourself from the narcissist, you have to quit caring what they think of you. You also need to let go of any dependence on the narcissist—emotional, physical, and financial. If you have young children, it may take years to completely disengage.

But you can begin to separate yourself emotionally when you quit allowing the narcissist to be your judge, the person who defines you, the person whose opinion is most important to you, and the person who controls your emotions. Disengagement means taking back control of your life instead of letting the narcissist determine your feelings. Get the narcissist out of your head as your judge and jury right now, and you'll find you feel significantly better, more optimistic, more creative, and happier. (Here's more on how to get over a narcissist, emotionally speaking.)

5. Stick to business.

As you become more disengaged from the narcissist, you can start treating your interactions with them in a more businesslike manner. In business, emotional responses are relegated to the background, and people try to talk about only the specific issue at hand. At work, you try your best to be cordial, even when you don't like somebody. You may disagree, but there is no name-calling, rude remarks, or hostile body language. You don't cry, beg, or share your intimate feelings with your work associates. Your interactions will go better with the narcissist if you follow this same model.

The narcissist used to be your closest and most trusted companion—the person whose responses mattered more to you than anyone else's. That is gone. They now see you as the enemy. So when you continue to expect that the narcissist will consider your feelings or entreaties, you'll probably be deeply disappointed, and your requests will trigger their guilt and hostility.

Being businesslike gives you more power. Be calm and rational, stick close to the topic, and refuse to be sidetracked. When you stay calm, the narcissist is the only one reacting emotionally and looks more clearly like the crazy person they are. Don't be intimidated or embarrassed by the narcissist's horrible behavior. It's all right for information about the narcissist's genuinely dreadful side to be visible to others. This makes the truth about their behaviors clear.

You used to enable the narcissist by keeping those behaviors hidden, but it will do you no good now. It may be a tremendous relief to you to quit covering up, and it allows the rest of the world to see the narcissist more authentically. I'm not suggesting that you gossip or talk derogatorily about the narcissist. Simply state facts without covering them up. Stop apologizing for the narcissist, and quit dismissing or explaining their rude and negative behaviors. You do not want to bad-mouth the narcissist to friends, family, or your children. Speak only the truth about the actual behaviors and words of the narcissist. Overall it is best to let people see for themselves how the narcissist acts under stress, which just requires you to stop covering it all up.

6. Take the best possible care of yourself.

When you focus on putting exercise, healthy food, and good self-care into your daily schedule, you'll find yourself feeling more powerful and doing less worrying. Actively taking care of your body automatically improves your self-esteem and prepares you to handle challenges. Moving your body helps balance your breathing, brings oxygen to your brain, and gets your heart pumping. These actions help keep you from shutting down emotionally or dropping into depression. Get a massage, sit in a hot tub, or do whatever helps you to relax. Make your own physical well-being a priority. (Here's our full guide to getting over a breakup, including healthy habits and self-care recommendations.)

I also recommend that you keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings. It's surprisingly calming and validating to put down on paper your experiences and insights. It can help you sort through the confusion and figure out what you want to do about this huge change. It's also a good memory trigger to help you stop "forgetting" and diminishing those negative interactions with the narcissist.

Now is not the time to be stingy with yourself. Invest in your health and healing. Put your time and money into services that provide good emotional care. Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it is good sense. It will also pay off for your friends, children, and loved ones in less worry and distress for them, too.

Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT author page.
Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Margalis Fjelstad received her doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy/Counseling from Oregon State University. She specializes in clients with narcissistic parents or spouses and has written two books on the topic: Healing from a Narcissistic Relationship and Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get On with Life. Fjelstad has served as an adjunct professor at Regis University in Colorado Springs and at California State University in Sacramento, where collectively she has taught more than 13,000 hours of graduate courses.