How to Recover after a Narcissistic Relationship
By: Christine Hammond LMHC
One of the defining characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a lack of accurate perception of reality. The narcissist sees the world through a self-absorbed lens in which they are the stars and others are there to support and serve them. Those attracted to the narcissist are dazzled by the superficial self-confidence, convincing opinions, charming personality, and shocking persistence. The non-narcissist frequently abandons their personal beliefs, standards, morals, and values in exchange for peace within the relationship.
But this is where the seeds of dysfunction are laid. The non-narcissist is unaware that their desire for peace is actually a slow corrosion of their identity. As a person becomes relationally entangled, the distorted perception of the narcissist now dominates nearly every aspect of their life. There are new expectations for what to wear, how to act, who to spend time with, when to engage, and where to be. The more the non-narcissist follows the rules, the less clearly they see reality.
Life becomes a filtered lens controlled solely by the narcissist. This foggy view limits a person to see real danger and keeps them on high alert. The survival instinct kicks in as they settle for an anxious environment wrought with fear of disappointing the narcissist sadly believing this is living. So when the relationship ends, it is no wonder the non-narcissist struggles.
The stages for recovery are slow but well worth the effort as in the end, a person can regain their identity and thrive. Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development is used as the foundation for recovery because it highlights the need to begin from the beginning and rework nearly every aspect of a person’s life.
1. Trust vs. Mistrust. In a narcissistic relationship, the non-narcissist is conditioned to only trust the narcissist in all ways of thinking, behaving, and emoting. Any differing opinion, including their own, is shot down and torn to shreds. Recovery must begin with learning to trust the perception of others, especially with those who understand the unique dynamics of this relationship.
2. Autonomy vs. Doubt/Shame. The narcissist frequently uses doubt and shame to subdue their partners because at the heart of narcissism is a person struggling with their own shame. Reversing this pattern means the non-narcissist must make their own decisions even if they are poor. The natural discovery process of learning from mistakes and suffering consequences develops autonomy.
3. Initiative vs. Guilt. The narcissistic ego rarely appreciates their partner taking initiative in the relationship. Instead they accuse the non-narcissist of trying to “control them” or “take over”. If there is one tiny hint of truth in those statements, the non-narcissist feels a parallelizing guilt. Gaining back initiative involves trying new things, exploring creativity, engaging with different people, and rediscovering favorite pastimes.
4. Industry vs. Inferiority. During the relationship, non-narcissist quickly discovers that what they do, think, and emote is always inferior to the narcissist. The narcissist’s constant need for superiority won’t tolerate a partner of equal or greater value. Reversing this pattern requires new thinking. The non-narcissist must constantly remind themselves that, “I am good enough” and “I do do good work.”
5. Identity vs. Role Confusion. Remember the old Pac-man game where the goal was to gobble up as many lesser blobs as possible? That is what narcissists like to do with the identities of others around them because this gives them more power and influence. The non-narcissist is frequently confused as to where the narcissist ends and they begin. Separating from this is difficult as the non-narcissist will need to try on various identities until they find one that is comfortable and best represents their true selves. This is the most time consuming stage.
6. Intimacy vs. Isolation. Narcissists can’t be intimate because even they don’t like their inner self despite the superficial bravado. As a result, the non-narcissist must settle for a relationship where both parties live in isolation. But outside of a narcissistic relationship, there lies the possibility of true intimacy. However, a person cannot be intimate with another person until they accept and know who they are. That is why the previous stage is so vital.
7. Generativity vs. Stagnation. The self-absorbed nature of a narcissist prevents them from giving back to others unless there is some type of outward benefit. Even within the relationship, the narcissist will expect far more than they give in return. Once outside the relationship, non-narcissists find pleasure in guiding others out of the narcissistic fog and into the new reality.
8. Wisdom vs. Despair. A person who stays in a narcissistic relationship long-term develops a sense that this is as good as it can get. They put aside their own wants and desires in exchange for the narcissist’s wishes. Their sacrifice is a silent surrender that few realize or appreciate. But when the narcissistic relationship ends, the wisdom the non-narcissist has gained from surviving the ordeal is staggering. Not only has the fog fully lifted, but the gained perception is crystal clear.
Recovering from a narcissistic relationship takes time. The longer the relationship lasted, the longer it takes to recover. Most don’t see stage six for at least a year. Be patient, there are many good benefits that can be gained from taking things slowly, which of course flies in the face of the demanding, “I want it now” narcissist.
To schedule an appointment with Christine Hammond, please call our office at 407-647-7005.