THE DARK WORLD OF NARCISSISM
“The abuse didn’t make you strong. You overcame it because you are strong. Let’s not give abusers credit for making us strong.”|Vassilia Binensztok
Being it’s Domestic Violence Awareness month, I must use my voice and share my truth that many other women can relate to. Watching the media lately and hearing story after story about abuse, narcissism, and sociopaths, I just had to use my platform to share my experience to help save someone’s life possibly. That might sound dramatic, but watching the video of Gabby Petito made me sick to my stomach in watching the manipulation and abuse. However, seeing the thousands of comments on social media of women who barely got out somehow made me feel more understood and not so alone in what I experienced. There has been a 41% increase in domestic violence crisis calls since the emergence of Covid-19. With many having to quarantine or lockdown, this trend is sadly going to increase. It’s estimated that 1 in 200 people worldwide have a narcissistic personality disorder, meaning someone you know is most likely living with this nightmare.
You own everything that happened to you and the right to tell your story. If people wanted you to write warmly or cared so much about their reputation, they should have behaved better. You owe no loyalty to anyone who abused you. Abusers gave up their right to any commitment or silence the moment they made their choice to abuse you. While there isn’t a simple solution, I feel the more I talk about my experience as a survivor of assault and battery, as well as domestic violence; it somehow gives me my power back. I hope it reminds other women to get out before it’s too late. I think it’s essential to refer to people as survivors and not just victims. A survivor indicates the person is exiting a harmful situation, and it honors their resiliency. While my experiences were with men, I’ve seen it happen with women as well, so in no way do I want to minimize that.
NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER
This concept started years ago in Greek mythology with Narcissus, the son of the river god Cephissus. As the myth goes, he was of surpassing beauty, and when he saw his reflection, he fell in love with himself and became incapable of loving others. Thus the term Narcissist came to stand for someone with a degree of self-love, so much so that the person is indifferent to anyone unless it can cause admiration for themselves. It became a diagnosed personality disorder in the early 1900s, but of course, it has existed throughout history. Many of us see this trait like never before in our culture today, and it continues to get more extreme.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of behavior, beginning in early adulthood. Traits manifest with grandiosity, entitlement, lack of empathy, exploitive, envious, haughty, an obsessive need for admiration, arrogant, jealous, demanding, and self-centered. Narcissists spend their lives repressing insecure parts of themselves by looking for things that will feed that insatiable need to feel superior, powerful, and strong. Another common trait is they will talk about how many of the opposite sex or ex’s want them, to try to make you jealous or make them seem in high demand. Many will try to exploit you for their gratification and false-ego validation sexually.
The bottom line, they are incapable of true love and deep connection. You are viewed as an object of what you can provide, like a human helium tank that maintains their inflated view of themselves. Narcissists will not support your career, value your relationships, the time you invest in yourself, eventually make you feel like you have no voice, opinion, or sense of individualism. You won’t realize that they have been lying to you from the beginning until the end, and you were in love with an illusion and complete fraud. A narcissist will promise you the same world they still owe their ex they discarded.
I honestly wish there was a course in high school on how to spot a narcissist. Many, including myself, wish there was better training in law enforcement and the judicial system of how these individuals operate. I had no clue when I got into my first relationship with a narcissist as a teenager and sadly experienced more than one. They seemed confident, exciting, self-assured, successful, and caring in the beginning. In the love bombing stage, they will spoil you with romance, gifts, compliments, and attention.
But, once you have lived it, that dream quickly becomes a nightmare. Early warning signs can also include wanting pity, a long history of failed relationships, little connection to their past, lack of nostalgia, few personal possessions, inconsistent details of the past, financial irresponsibility, and no personal accountability. Many narcissists will use their ex as a scapegoat for the current low state, claim they lied, cheated, and ruined them. Remember, love does not suck you dry and leave you feeling defeated. The only “cure” is to leave.
DON’T BELIEVE OUTWARD APPEARENCES
One of the most challenging realities about narcissists is knowing and choosing when to act in specific ways. The persona they create will almost feel custom-built for you, like they are perfect for you initially. They are excellent actors playing the role, but they will soon be auditioning for another part when the film wraps. So, they often thrive financially, can seem charming to others, hide their shady side, and usually only show that dark side when behind closed doors. Sadly, many victims feel like no one will believe them, and it can be hard to prove abuse. They will make promises so masterfully that intuition can be ignored. Many of us that have experienced toxic relationships had a feeling in our gut something wasn’t right, so trust your instinct. Narcissists will abuse you in private but seem so attentive in public. That’s not an anger management issue, that’s wanting control, and it is a choice they are making. Do not choose chemistry over character. Because chemistry won’t console you amidst grief, attraction won’t choose to love you on bad days, and sparks stop flying when life’s realities hit.
You will think back to when you first met them, how they spoiled you, cherished you, made you feel special when all along it was front. It was not who they were. They were studying you and learning how to exploit you. This is why many narcissists try to pressure others into relationships fast before you can see the person behind the mask. Many of them look for kind, compassionate, empathic partners who they can manipulate easier. They will be great listeners initially, trying to exploit your weaknesses and figure out how to control you better. It’s like a parasite that needs a host or supply and will do whatever it takes to trap its prey. Most of us were raised to be genuine, honest, caring humans, when sadly, we had to learn the hard way that such vile humans exist. A narcissist can manipulate anyone; it has nothing to do with your intelligence, but rather no one prepared us how disturbing a human can be.
I will never forget when my therapist brought up the term “gaslighting” in a session and had me go home to research it. While many of us have watched the psychopath on screen manipulate and play head games in the movies, it’s not always easy to see when you are the victim of it. The term originated from a stage play in the 1930s called “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton. It’s a dark story of a marriage based on deception where the husband drives the wife to think she’s crazy by subtly manipulating her environment. This practice, just like a fatal gas leak, can lead to death. While it can happen anywhere, the most commonplace for this abuse is in romantic relationships.
Narcissists manipulate someone psychologically into questioning their sanity, feeling like they are never enough, and undermining their self-worth. You begin to question reality in what you feel when you express yourself or doubt your perceptions. It’s a persistent effort to create a false narrative of where a person wears you down and wants control. Examples of this abuse include making you constantly defend yourself, controlling money, pushing away others you care about, making hurtful remarks about you, and they always have to be right. All of these tactics can lead to you feeling insecure, anxious, and vulnerable. Many learn gaslighting growing up or from their environment around them, but whatever the case, there is no place for it and no curing someone of it.
Trauma Bonding was another term brought to my attention in therapy, which I had not thought was common. While it can happen in any relationship, it’s prevalent with domestic abuse. Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse that becomes reinforced over time and can be very addicting. While it’s natural for humans to crave love, need connection, comfort, support, and fear abandonment, some relationships can create unhealthy dependence. In the beginning, the narcissist will shower you with fake love, care, and concern. Once control is established, the abuse starts, and the mask falls off.
This can lead some to feel they need to be saved or be validated. Many experience conditioning after the abuse; the person will show slight remorse, saying they love them, want to change, and this gives you hope of again getting the love you once felt or recognition. An apology without change is just manipulation. Other warning signs are hearing I love you too soon, them asking you to make significant life changes, feeling like they are overly caring, wanting to know where you are all the time, controlling how you look, or them not respecting others in your life. More often than not, when a person is being abused, they don’t stop loving or caring for their abuser; they stop loving and caring for themselves.
Healthline reminds us that “People can’t help the development of trauma bonds, which are driven by strong biological processes. Hormones can be powerful reinforcers. Dopamine has a similar function in trauma bonding. Oxytocin, a feel-good hormone we crave, further strengthens the bond. It’s an intense cycle that is complicated and hard to identify when in the situation.” Victims will suffer from cognitive dissonance, which is extreme mental discomfort and confusion.
If you’re unsure, ask yourself if you become defensive or make excuses for their behavior to others, feel like no one else gets how much they love you, make excuses for their actions, or take any blame when they become abusive. Narcissists are also experts in making you feel bad for them, that they need you, or blame their anger on outside factors. When in doubt, talk to a professional or helpline, a non-emotional resource, who can make you aware of what’s truly happening. Many survivors who leave experience symptoms similar to coming off a drug, but the good news is recovery is possible.
REASONS TO GET OUT
Thankfully toward the end of my abusive relationships, I was fortunate enough to have family, friends, and therapists that assured me I needed to get out. Psychology Today notes a few signs when it’s better to end a relationship. These include hoping they will change, not feeling understood, feeling drained, having to cover up for them, accusing you of false actions, making constant apologies, constant conflict, never taking accountability, and any emotional or physical abuse. Unfortunately, narcissists rarely get professional help because they won’t admit the problem and don’t want their tactics exposed. Remember reporting any abuse doesn’t ruin their lives; they did that themselves and should be held accountable. It shows everyone around you who they indeed are. It protects others from possible future abuse. It’s not gossip; it’s integrity.
So many friends, including myself, stayed longer than we should. That’s because it hurts to watch something you love transform into something you hate. When seeing someone you know in an unhealthy relationship, make sure they know you support them. Don’t ever victim blame by highlighting the error of their wrong choice. It’s imperative to remember it’s the abuser who chose to put them in this situation. Instead, listen to them openly, try not to judge, but provide empathy. Affirm their perspective, don’t blame them in any way, and share concerns gently. Narcissists like to isolate their partners, so suggest meeting them outside the home, offering financial help if they need to leave, providing community resources, and discussing an escape plan if needed. Many use children or pets as collateral, but know the longer you stay, the more damage will be done to them. Leaving a narcissist will not be easy, but it is possible.
Many women stay in toxic relationships because of finances, fear of what others will think, loss of identity, and sadly for their children. Abusers don’t abuse everyone they come in contact with, so placing doubt on victims based on your experience with them is unkind and irresponsible. Remember, you are stronger than you think, and your children deserve a healthy relationship where abuse in any form has no tolerance. I was very grateful to have a family that stepped up. Friends who hid me in their homes, other’s who gifted me money, a lawyer willing to help me at a discounted rate, doctors who protected my rights, community advocates who educated me, officers who took their job seriously to protect me, therapists to help me heal. My most considerable help was faith to keep me grounded and a daughter who had to be shown how a woman deserves to be treated.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
First and foremost, remember it was never your fault. Abuse is a choice people make and must be held accountable. Some of us chose to see the good in someone, some of us might have unresolved trauma, some of us were hopeful, had lousy self-esteem, weak boundaries, were too conscientious, and some of us love whole-heartedly. See your vulnerabilities as superpowers. Never let anyone make you feel guilty for not seeing a narcissist. There was nothing you did or didn’t do that could’ve changed the outcome for them. They don’t love you; they are just in love with the idea of you. Understand that all the dreams they sold you were illusions. It was no boundaries of age, race, gender, or any other demographic; it happens daily worldwide. Sometimes you have to make a decision that will break your heart but heal your soul.
Traumatized individuals can lose faith in life, find it very hard to trust, feel broken, and have a hard time feeling hopeful about the future. It can rock us to our foundation about beliefs in humanity, betrayal, and losing faith in promises. But, remember the issue is not with you, and you are resilient. We can look around at healthy relationships and know good still exists and is possible. Look at your mistakes with compassion and understanding, not shame. Then, you can start over and build the life you deserve. Leaving a narcissist is like peeling an onion; little by little, with time, you realize how many ways you were manipulated, taken advantage of, and it was way worse than you thought.
Leaving a narcissistic relationship will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It will hurt because you are mourning a fantasy, something that never really existed. But, remember, your life is worth more than any relationship. Don’t be another statistic of a woman on the news who stayed too long. While our brains sometimes will think of the seemly “better” times before the mask came off, remember that you are also losing sleepless nights, walking on eggshells, the knots in your stomach, feeling ignored, blamed, and stress that never subsided. Author Sarah Moss wisely states, “I think we should start using the term “escape.” Domestic violence victims don’t leave, they escape. Some don’t make it out with their lives, all are injured. To use the word “leave” implies that it’s easy. It’s an escape with high risks.”
The end of any relationship is painful, and it’s useless to replay in your mind what happened. When it comes to leaving a narcissist, experts advise absolutely no contact. Let go of the fantasy of what you thought it was, which is like grieving, and it takes time. Instead, surround yourself with supportive friends and family who will let you talk and, most importantly, validate your feelings. Numerous online and local communities can help you feel understood. Remember the person you used to be before the abuse, believe in yourself, trust your intuition and values, be an example of a survivor who valued themselves. Dr. Mark Banschick notes, “Remember that the narcissist will quickly move on and not value anything about you. While that seems harsh to a loving person, it’s the sad truth and needs to be remembered on those hard days.”
Another important reminder is that narcissists hate to be alone and need a supply to feed off. So, when you see your ex with someone new, and it’s inevitable, remember that they don’t have someone better. They are just with someone who doesn’t know the real person and what you’ve already learned the hard way. Ph.D. expert Gena Da Silva reminds us, “It’s normal to want closure, but closure cannot come from a narcissist. In reality, everything is unresolved until it is finally resolved within you.” You will never know the whole truth, how many times they lied, the deception, manipulation, so you have to choose to be strong enough to know there was nothing left to save.
Because of the head games and manipulation, it can be hard to trust someone again and even trust yourself. Having your gut instincts and convictions undermined causes a hit to your self-esteem. All victims need professional support to heal, grow, learn and become aware of their patterns. Many survivors, including myself, suffer from PTSD and anxiety, which can be complicated to cope with. Each experience is different, and know there is hope. I have benefited from EMDR, which can be a massive help in helping your brain reprocess memories and allow the mind not be triggered so easily. Some trauma survivors need the assistance of medication, which is understandable after what they’ve endured. Don’t be ashamed to get help and know each person’s experience is unique.
HEALING FROM THE TRAUMA
Recovery from narcissistic abuse includes grief and time. You will be grieving what you thought they were, what you hoped it was, the time lost, and the energy spent. When getting over the pain of a breakup with a narcissist, you’ve spent so much time analyzing their behavior, figuring out their character, and trying to make sense of their twisted actions; it can be hard to let go. Another one of my favorite writers, Nikita Gill, shared this truth, “He is a storm, and storms devastate, but every time he hurts you, you hold your breath and bear the hurricane; repeating to yourself one more chance, one more breath, just one more, and you’ll fix him. Until one day, you can’t hold your breath anymore, and you are half a stormy evening, one tear-stained night, two minutes and five seconds away from breaking down. And you realize, you cannot fix anyone, not until you fix yourself.”
Even after the breakup, your mind will continue trying to figure out what happened, and it’s natural to want to understand how someone who claimed to love you could act this way. While it’s essential, to be honest with yourself, remember it’s no longer your concern to fix them, heal them, or put any effort into them anymore. Instead, when thoughts arise about them, they will gently encourage your mind to dwell on the reasons you left and that they alone are responsible for themselves.
While targets, like I was, aren’t easy to give up and want to help heal a broken narcissist, there are long-term consequences to staying when it’s no longer healthy. Sadly trauma therapist Caroline Strawson notes there are lasting effects from this type of abuse. She states, “Narcissistic abuse survivors often end up with chronic illness such as autoimmune disorders and adrenal fatigue. This is because the body is pumping out cortisol daily, even when the danger has subsided. The long-term exposure causes inflammation and pain-causing our immune system to attack itself.”
Poet Wattney Lander eloquently expresses the truth, “I could’ve let you come back, but I’m not going to abandon myself anymore.” Once you dig into that place of courage, be gentle with yourself, knowing some days will be better than others. Make daily time for self-care in whatever form fills you up. Forgive yourself for actions you regret or not leaving sooner. Re-establish healthy boundaries, remembering you have a right to say no. Educate yourself on the experience because many have suffered from abuse. While the hurt and pain will never entirely be forgotten, you will get stronger and back to who you truly are. You can survive anything, and you can use that experience to help others.
Always keep in mind, you can’t help someone that doesn’t want help, make someone ready to change, you can’t do the work for them, and you are not in charge of their recovery. Dr. Sherrie Cambell reminds us that “Abusive behavior should bring well-deserved consequences. The best way to bring those consequences is to remove your presence from the abuser and move on. Go and be happy. Be successful. Embrace a new life.” Remember, on those hard days, you aren’t lazy, unmotivated, or stuck; after years of living your life in survival mode, you’re exhausted. There’s a difference, and not everyone will understand that.
Many of us have been guilty of trying to love someone so much or fix them that we slowly fail to notice we are being broken down. I still feel the consequences of the abuse I endured daily, and while I can’t go back, I hope that sharing my story might help you, a friend, a relative, a coworker, or someone you know to get out before it’s too late. Don’t ignore the red flags; think you can change someone and ever be a victim of this tragic mind game. The only revenge is to move on and make a choice to be happy. Keep in mind with work, you can heal, while the narcissist won’t. A message to all the narcissists out there is you live your life as if everything is about you; you will be left with just that, just you.